Although the vehicles were securely wrapped in plastic sheeting, the level of flooding was such that they were completely inundated with brackish water. In a matter of days, the storm waters were pumped out of the Museum, enabling conservators to quickly begin their work of cleaning and drying the vehicles. Time was of the essence to prevent the formation of mold and rust. The trucks were cleaned with a biodegradable cleanser to remove any microbial soiling. They were next steam cleaned to remove any remaining salt water, a process that expedited the evaporation of surface moisture to avoid the onset of rusting. Once the cleaning was completed, the vehicles were moved into their present locations within the exhibition experience, ready for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s May 2014 opening.
Staff from the Museum’s Collections department routinely reviews the condition of each vehicle on permanent display, monitoring tires for signs of embrittling, checking areas of flaking paint for stability, and ensuring that dust accumulation is kept at bay. Dust is problematic because it is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts water from the air. Having something that attracts water which also sits on the surface of these metal trucks presents a continuous risk of corrosion. In fall 2019, the department’s conservation team began to notice some strange crystals forming on the underside of the vehicles and observed fluids beginning to drip onto the floor underneath the vehicles. The liquid residues were particularly concerning as fluids had been drained as part of the initial vehicle decommissioning process in 2010.
It was suspected that these crystalline formations and fluids were remnant flood waters from Superstorm Sandy, trapped in the vehicles’ mechanical systems, finally migrating out of the interstices. The combination of water and metal led to corrosion and small amounts of metal loss over time, enabling the fluids to escape. When the brackish water evaporated, salt crystals formed on the surface of the metal.
The team monitoring the conditions lacked the mechanical expertise to determine where the water was trapped. During winter 2019, a plan was made to coordinate with the experts at FDNY Fleet Services and invite their diagnostic collaboration in developing a plan to rid the affected vehicles of their Superstorm Sandy legacy.
After an initial assessment, Fleet Services returned to the Museum over the summer, when the Museum was still closed to visitors due to the pandemic. They brought with them a full team including Assistant Fire Commissioner Mark Aronberg, Executive Director of Fleet Operations Andy Diamond, as well as Emergency Crew Mechanics Roy Caulkin and Nick Saccas. During their examination of Ladder 3 it was discovered that the rear axles had not been effectively drained in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Remarkably, they drained away approximately 5 gallons of water from the axles. They also managed to remove an old oil filter from the Ambulance and fit it with a replacement that could absorb any additional fluids.
Now that all the FDNY vehicles have been reassessed by Fleet Services, the conservation team is confident the crystal growths and fluid leakage will be things of the past. We are extremely grateful to the extraordinary staff at Fleet Services who have helped the 9/11 Memorial & Museum care for these poignant vehicles in the past and who continue to share their time and unparalleled knowledge with us so generously at every turn.